Mystery Plant! #715

John Nelson

Posted 3/23/2023

By John Nelson

Photo by Linda Lee.

Don’t worry about kids falling out of this tree. It’s terrible for a tree house, or just for climbing, and for pretty obvious reasons.

It is a native deciduous plant, fairly common from New York through the lower Midwest, and south to Texas and northern Florida. Most people would consider this plant something of a shrub, but it does get to be tree-sized, that is, short tree-sized, with the tallest usually about 30 or so feet high. The plants grow quickly in a variety of woodland habitats, often on open, disturbed ground. Otherwise, they can handle reasonably shady places. The plants are quite striking when they reach any appreciable size, for a variety of reasons.

The plants themselves are only sparingly branched, and so a thicket of these in late winter will sometime have a kind of “stickly”, willowy look. The plants frequently spread themselves by runners, just below the soil surface. The leaves are quite impressive: technically, they are the largest leaves of any North American tree species. The leaves are just now starting to sprout out, however, so you’ll have to wait to see them in their full glory. Each leaf is equipped with a smooth, pale brown stalk, and the blade is divided over and over again into many dozens of teardrop-shaped leaflets. Because most people will look at the entire leaf and see only leaflets, they think the leaf itself is small. But the leaf is definitely compound, and big ones can be nearly 4 feet long. The autumn foliage is attractive, a sort of shiny yellow. In winter condition, the scar produced by the falling leaf is quite prominently U-shaped, something like a smile, and each of these leaf scars will reveal a series of vascular bundle scars within, arranged in a crescent. Small white flowers are produced in umbrella-like clusters in large, branched arrangements toward the top of the trunk. A variety of insects love the flowers, including bees, wasps and several butterflies. In late summer, the young fruits begin to swell and turn dark, eventually becoming shiny purple-black, and very juicy. Delicious for birds…although when I sampled one or two, they were terrible!

But the wondrous thing about this plant must be the fantastic assortment of “stickers” it exhibits. The young stickers are pliable and green, but eventually become hardened, or indurated, both hook-shaped as well as straight. The sharp stickers may be found all up and down the stems, and also on the leaf stalks and successive divisions of the leaf blade. You’ll also see a prominent “crown” of these things associated with each leaf scar. (Note that these stickers are technically what we call “prickles,” and are not thorns, as they contain no vascular tissue. The “thorns” of a rose bush are also prickles. If you want true thorns, you might consider something like the treacherous honey-locust.)

This native species makes a wonderful addition to the back border of a garden, as long as you can handle its sprouts, from the runners. The flowers and fruits are attractive to wildlife, and the fall foliage is nice. Be sure to tell your friends that it is a relative of ginseng (and English ivy!)   ©JohnNelson2023

[Answer:  “Devil’s walking-stick,” Aralia spinosa]

John Nelson is the retired curator of the Herbarium at the University of South Carolina, in the Department of Biological Sciences. As a public service, the Herbarium offers free plant identifications. For more information, visit or email

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